A third of serious malpractice claims due to diagnostic error


A third of medical malpractice cases associated with patient death or permanent disability result from diagnostic errors by health providers, an analysis finds.

Dr. David Newman-Toker is professor of neurology and director of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. David E. Newman-Toker

Lead investigator David E. Newman-Toker, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and colleagues reviewed malpractice claims during 2006-2015 from medical liability insurer CRICO’s Comparative Benchmarking System database, which represents 30% of all malpractice claims in the United States.

Investigators sought to identify diseases accounting for the majority of serious diagnosis-related harms associated with the claims. Of 55,377 closed claims, researchers identified 11,592 diagnostic error cases, of which 7,379 resulted in high-severity harm.

Of the high-severity claims, 34% stemmed from inaccurate or delayed diagnosis (Diagnosis 2019 Jul 11. doi. org/10.1515/dx-2019-0019).

The majority of diagnostic mistakes (74%) causing the most severe harm were attributable to cancer (38%), vascular events (23%), and infection (14%). These cases resulted in nearly $2 billion in malpractice payouts over a 10-year period, investigators found.

Clinical judgment factors were the primary reason behind the alleged errors, specifically: failure or delay in ordering a diagnostic test, narrow diagnostic focus with failure to establish a differential diagnosis, failure to appreciate and reconcile relevant symptoms or test results, and failure or delay in obtaining consultation or referral and misinterpretation of diagnostic studies.

“Diagnostic errors are the most common, the most catastrophic, and the most costly of medical errors,” Dr. Newman-Toker said at a press conference July 11. “We know that this is a major problem, at an individual, personal level, but also at a societal level and something we really have to take action toward fixing.”

This study breaks new ground by drilling into the major diseases most commonly associated with diagnostic errors, Dr. Newman-Toker said. In the cancer category, the most common cancers linked to severe harm were lung, breast, colorectal, prostate, and melanoma. In the vascular category, the most common conditions were stroke; myocardial infarction; venous thromboembolism; aortic aneurysm and dissection; and arterial thromboembolism. In the area of infection, sepsis; meningitis and encephalitis; spinal abscess; pneumonia; and endocarditis were the most common infections identified.

The findings provide a starting point to make improvements in the area of medical errors, said Dr. Newman-Toker, president of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, an organization that aims to improve diagnosis and eliminate harm from diagnostic error.

“Although diagnostic errors happen everywhere, across all of medicine in every discipline with every disease, we might be able to take a big chunk out of this problem if we save a lot of lives and prevent a lot disability and if we focus some energy on tackling these problems,” he said. “It at least gives us a starting place and a roadmap for how to move the ball forward in this regard.”

The Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine has called on Congress to invest more funding into research to address diagnostic errors. Society CEO and cofounder Paul L. Epner noted that the 2019 House appropriations bill proposes not less than $4 million for diagnostic safety and quality research, which is up from $2 million last year.

“It’s a small step, but in the right direction,” Mr. Epner said. “[However,] the federal investment in research remains trivially small in relation to the public burden. That’s why we urge Congress to commit to research funding levels proportionate to the societal cost, in both human lives and in dollars.”

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